Friday, April 23, 2010

The Email Nuisance

I recently read an article on thirty practices that will change a person’s life for the better. I counted on my fingers, along with two friends, which are already a part of my life as I read them out loud. To my knowledge, there are only two that I’ve adopted since reading the article.

The first is drinking a glass of water immediately after waking up. I have a glass of water at my bedside when I go to sleep, and when I wake up there it is waiting to be consumed. My mornings are much better when I do this.

The other is checking my email twice a day. Anyone who has even the mildest presence on the internet will encounter this problem: “Why do I feel compelled to check my email every fifteen minutes?”

There are two solutions from where I sit.

The first is don’t treat it like a problem at all. Email is a narrow pipeline of all alerts that make a person feel required to offer a response. A person must check their email every fifteen minutes because they need to respond quickly to whatever is happening in their networked, online world. Being on top of these emails will get someone ahead of all the others. Who doesn’t like a prompt response to their emails?

I reject this approach. Here are my reasons.

There are no boundaries in a world where a person cannot get away from emails. They are obligated to respond, and become enslaved to a reactive role in others’ lives. If you think this is not true, then take a free day and spend all your time waiting for someone to email you. Don’t let ten minutes pass without reading a new message or offering a response to any email received. It’s insatiable. Having at least three to four hours (besides sleep) where a person is not obligated to communicate through that medium is necessary to maintain sanity.

Have you ever been online, browsed several sites, notice an hour has passed, and by the end of it realized the past hour provided zero satisfaction? Find yourself compelled to watch videos you really don’t enjoy? Researching topics that are pointless?

When I moved into my current apartment, my roommates and I decided to not have the internet. We would leave the house to check our email etc. What I’ve found is that when I get on my computer to check my email I spend at least thirty to forty five minutes on a task that should take no more than ten.

But wait, Will. Isn’t it nice to have this daydream-like time where a person can aimlessly wander the web without any guidelines or clear intention? Don’t people need time to let their eyes glaze over and have mindless activity?

(Tangent: daydreaming is infinite. Even if it does have the the words “world” and “wide” in it, the internet has boundaries and is narrower than it seems. This might be the “web” part of its name coming into play. It has nowhere near the sharp coziness of the imagination, nor its broad infinitude. Surfing the internet can be like television in its detrimental effects on the imagination. This topic, however, is for another time.)

Aimless wandering isn’t bad. The problem is when it’s unregulated, unplanned, and cuts into more beneficial ways of getting rest. That’s the issue isn’t it? A person wants to not think so they can let their mind rest. I agree that it’s important. However, it’s good when it’s not impulsive, and the person knows the what and the why of their project.

I see this a lot in the libraries on campus. Students come to study, but looking around the room I see most computers on, and most of the content on those computers are completely recreational.

Oh come on, Will. Quit being so harsh. You don’t know if it’s work-related or not.

You’re right. I don’t know. If I am completely wrong about my experience with email, then disregard what I say. However, if any of this relates, then I strongly suggest giving yourself two small blocks in the day where the time is spent reading emails and responding. If you have a job that requires more, then by all means adapt.

Does this blog count as a waste of time?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Why I Started a Blog

Two people have made the same comment since I started this blog: I need to know who my audience is. If I want to write academic work, then academic people will be drawn to what I write. If I write about celebrity gossip, then I draw that crowd. It seems simple, but somehow this has only been a source of stress for me. I don’t know what to write, or more specifically, there are so many things I want to write and I feel I have to write on certain topics in a certain tone.

I talked with a friend last night about my work, and in our conversation a truth I’d known existed emerged with words I could identify it with: I don’t know how to be funny in my writing. There could be up to two problems at work here. I could actually not be funny at all, and my writing makes it clear that this is so, and/or I’ve never had to write in a humorous way so the whole exercise is starting at the most basic level.

Is the first true? I don’t think it is. I’m a funny person. Come on.

The second? Yes. Nearly all the writing in the past five years, with the exception of the occasional love letter, has had a serious tone to it. Academic work doesn’t leave room for much humor, although it’s not forbidden. Love letters can have humor, but I want to get to the words that show affection. Journaling is always serious for me. I’ve hated it, but it’s the case. I usually start journaling when there is too much drama for me to handle and I need another outlet beyond the friends in my life to empty all these thoughts and feelings into something that can handle it, thus it’s inevitably serious in tone. Paper has an amazing resilience in this regard.

So all these fronts have been sober: academic, journaling, love life etc. Why such a divide?

There is one place where humor emerges in the written word, but another problem comes with it. Instant messaging and text messaging. Yes, I’m funny left and right in these venues. People say something and I think of something witty in response and we all laugh. Wonderful.

Why doesn’t that come up in other writing then?

Simple. The kind of writing done in text messaging and instant messaging is short, often grammatically incorrect, poorly thought out, and the thoughts are the least developed they can be. In a sense, I have no stamina to write funny material that’s longer than three sentences after spending too much time in the world of text messaging. Think of how long this blog entry is. Could you imagine getting a text this long? Would you have the patience for it? No.

I’m not against text messaging or instant messaging. I’ll be the first to defend it in situations where someone says it’s degenerating society and keeping people from face-to-face interaction, or even hearing another person’s voice. This, of course, does happen with some people, but their problem isn’t text messaging. Their problem only shows itself through text messaging. Easy.

A blog is a place for longer conversations. If my writing life becomes so polarized that I either write twenty page papers in a serious tone or one sentence messages in a playful tone, then I live in two worlds I can’t reconcile. The place where it runs together is the spoken word, in conversations etc. That was one of the reasons I started a blog. I wanted what happened in conversations with friends to come out in a way that was more concrete, and sharable to more than a few people at a time. A place between the stilted academic work I do for class, and not the mindless play I create in texting.

I look at the entries before this, and notice I’ve taken it to the academic side. This bothers me. I don’t want to be so serious and leave a significant facet of my personality out of my writing. Besides, it’s really boring if it’s not entertaining in the least.

So, where is the humor in this blog?

I had a roof joke to tell, but it’s probably over your head.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Book Review of Haruki Murakami's "Kafka on the Shore"

One of the reasons many fans of science fiction favor Star Wars over Star Trek is the overt spirituality found in the story. There is the force, which holds a mysterious presence over all the jedi do, and manages to hold the audience in rapture as its sages explain its workings. Obi Wan teaches Luke how to use a light saber, and as an example of the force, tells him to lower the blast shield so he can’t see his opponent and must feel his way in the fight.
Since humanity began telling stories, the world of fairies, genii, gods, and otherworldly heroes have walked with us to impress and leave in their wake mystery and awe over what they take for granted as everyday life. I’ve found that in South American and Asian literature the world of fairies and creatures we can only imagine what strange creatures the characters describes are, and amazingly show themselves in stories that would otherwise seem ordinary. Visions of the future in dreams, visits from dead relatives, crossing the boundary between the living and the dead, all are examples these authors seem comfortable telling. This is one of them.
Murakami tells the story of Kafka, the fifteen year old who never knew his sister or mother and despises his father, forcing him to leave home with a hefty bit of cash and go in search of something he couldn’t identify at the time. He goes to an anonymous town, meets a girl a few years older than himself, has a sexual encounter with her, and leaves to find himself living at a library owned by an older mysterious woman he is later attracted to. The story is charged with human sexuality and in places becomes nearly gratuitous in the description of what happens.

If it sounds a lot like the story of Oedipus, then you are right. It is the story of Oedipus told in modern day Japan with an overlay of Japanese culture and a fluid transition between what is real and unreal, life and death, and what is natural and supernatural. Like much of the animation coming from Japan, two worlds mix and the reader floats back and forth until each is indistinguishable. Anime seems obsessed with the relationship of the spiritual world to the digital one and how they two relate to each other in a way that can make sense with what came before.

What Murakami does well is his telling of the world of spirits where time stops and people are at the mercy of those who are familiar with the otherwise unfamiliar. He incorporates mystery into his story where it is obvious that a door to another world has been opened, and all the reader can do is stand and wonder along with the characters. The explanations of this other world are lacking, which works in the story to make it even more appealing and interesting. The story moves nicely, and each chapter ends with the reader wanting to know what happens next. Wonderful pairings occur. One is reminiscent of the pair in the movie “Rainman” where one is dependent on the other to survive in the world and seems to belong to another place, yet has so much to teach the person who seems wise to all around. Characters are strong and vivid in the story, and when they meet it is a task to imagine what the two would say to one another.
The story, however, lacks in contrast to what happens with Kafka and conclusions the story comes to in the end. The dialogue in the more dramatic parts is overly sentimental and predictable, which doesn’t fit well with the wonderfully vivid and interesting descriptions of what happens to its characters.

Overall, it is a compelling read with interesting characters that are easily known. Certain conversations serve as an entrance to the mysterious world created, while others seem to serve as filler where characters can’t seem to transcend the ordinariness of everyday interaction. He does well with showing the extraordinary in the extraordinary, but the extraordinary in the ordinary is still a mystery.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Right to Exclude

Today the Wall Street Journal published an article on a case in California where a Christian organization at a law school in San Francisco barred anyone who did not sign on to their beliefs regarding adultery, fornication, and homosexuality. The case was disputed on the issue of gay rights and the school providing funds to a group that would openly prevent a person from joining based on what beliefs they held. The school insists any organization receiving school funding should admit any student who shows interest.
The organization claims the First Amendment in being able to choose members that are committed to promoting their beliefs. Without this in place, an atheist could join and lead a Bible study, or a different case a Democrat could join the Republican group and create chaos without penalty.
On the other side, Justice John Paul Stevens says a group can hold the belief that black people are inferior, even if the members themselves are black. The organization can exist, but the issue is the school funding such an organization. It would be discrimination to bar people for that reason.
What's the solution to this problem?
When I was serving as a campus minister in Tyler, TX two years ago I was faced with a similar problem and spent about three seconds thinking about its solution. A Muslim man came to our lunches every week and spent the whole two hours talking and would even stay afterwards to help clean. One day he came to me and asked about the leadership team and how he could join, which creates a dilemma. The man wants to help and be more involved, but he lacks fundamental beliefs that match with the mission and drive of the ministry. Of course the man could come to any of the events, Bible studies and worship included, but he could not serve as a leader in the ministry where he would teach and lead others. Does this mean I required every leader in the ministry to agree with me? No. But they did have to sign a form agreeing to a few doctrinal points, making it clear to me they (at least in confessing) hold certain beliefs.
But was this discrimination?
No. I wouldn't expect a Muslim group to allow me to teach or lead within a mosque. If I wanted to be an Imam without relinquishing the doctrine of the Incarnation, there would be problems. I would expect no less. Most churches have a ceremony where a person confesses and show their agreement with the beliefs of that church. Does the same apply to campus organizations?
But what about homosexuality? Is this a breach of gay rights? Is it discrimination to exclude someone, not based on their sexual orientation, but on their belief about a sexual orientation?
The move by Justice Stevens is to turn it to race. What if a group had a racist belief and required its members to hold that view? It is a belief, and it is discriminatory. But would that work the same with homosexuality? No. Homosexuality, adultery, and fornication are all behaviors and the group took a moral position on those issues. Race, on the other hand, is not a behavior but an intrinsic attribute. I make a distinction between the two. A belief is one thing, the genes a person inherits from their parents is another.
Turning it around, could a person who views homosexuality as immoral join a LGBT group and become a leader?
I'll take the issue more broadly though. Can a group exclude people based on their beliefs? Yes. Discrimination based on race, gender, or ethnicity is a separate case.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Epic Blog

Since the fall I’ve heard the word “epic” used in a novel way that would qualify as slang. Rather than the two thousand year old “epic poem” or “epic tale,” it’s still an adjective but used in place of “awesome” or “incredible.” For example:

It was an epic road trip.

Epic failure.

An epic night with my friends.

I’d say it’s a slang use of the word, although it’s not far from its original meaning. Here’s its adjectival definition:

of, relating to, or characteristic of an epic or epics


heroic or grand in scale or character

The recent use follows the second definition.

Here’s one Urban Dictionary’s many definitions for it:

Awesome, kickass, or otherwise positive. Can be used to refer to anything but is usually referring to a particular event or action. The most common usages are "epic win" or "epic failure," and some prefer to type it in all caps. Occasionally people use the phrase "Epic ___" as a stand-alone sentence or phrase, always following a story about something considered Epic.

"Epic Movie" came out in 2007. This may have something to do with its popularity, even the movie itself wasn't popular.

Before the last year, the word “proportions” usually followed it, but now it’s all on its own and doing fine.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Since I’ve been in seminary, certain words and phrases have stood out and demanded more attention for further study. Here are four: mysticism, love, freedom, grace. I’ve yet to have a decent explanation of any of those that doesn’t leave me with questions, or have it presented in a way that is counterintuitive or made of plastic. Faced with this problem, how could I go about resolving it? I could just criticize the definitions I’ve been given and say how they’re wrong, disassembling and never intending to finish the job. This would be a lazy and cowardly thing to do. Merely attacking things without offering solutions, at least as a general policy, is an intellectual vice. This approach to learning has a name: obscurantism.

Have you ever talked to someone who keeps criticizing things, but never offers a solution to any of it? Have you ever taken a Sociology class? It’s an approach that is incomplete in offering solutions or doesn’t offer revisions to what it criticizes.

Another form of obscurantism is the intentional omission of information or facts. In a sense, it is closed-mindedness in the way that certain information is inaccessible or discarded for the sake of preserving a certain view from attack.

In regard to intellectual virtue then, it is good to have the ability to accept all the facts, and gain as much knowledge on an issue as possible. More specifically, this would be intellectual courage, which would be the ability to listen, gather information, and somehow assimilate it into a coherent whole.

In politics today, China is obscurantist with their restrictions on internet search engines and Google’s decision to leave. If you went to China and searched “Tiananmen square,” a series of red flags arise. This is one of many words the Chinese cannot search because of restrictions by the government. Google, in proper liberal democratic fashion, was not comfortable with restrictions on information, and pulled out.

Or take what happened with the health care debate and the Republicans becoming the party of “no.” Granted, they were forced into a defensive position on the issue, but their counter was weak and hollow. The Democrats took the same approach in the 80s.

What about the church? An easy target would be the church’s obsession with heresy, or that incident with Galileo when the church seemingly declared war on science and hasn’t been able to fully reconcile since (evolution?).

Stepping aside the issue of what happened with Galileo, let’s take the issue of heresy in the church. Could we say that the church engaged in obscurantism with the Gnostics (a first and second century heresy that held the view of two gods, one of the material world and the Old Testament, and one of the spiritual world and New Testament)? Did they need to assimilate this view into the doctrine of the church? No, they did not. The opposite of obscurantism is not accepting every view as true. On the issue of heresy, the church is rejecting a view that is incompatible with her teaching. If the church has established that God is the Trinity, then someone comes along and says, “We believe God is only the Father, and Christ is His greatest creation,” then the church will have to either accept or reject this view. If they accept it, then there has to be reconciliation between what it confessed earlier and what the new teaching is. The obvious contradiction cannot be ignored. In this case, then, the church has already established the doctrine of the Trinity and anything that undermines it must be declared as heresy (mere opinion).

As an undergrad, my greatest frustration (within the classroom) grew from having to sit in a class listening to a professor prattle until the feeling of helplessness was unbearable among the students, and undirected anger festered without structure or guidance. I saw it in sociology classes then, and at seminary it came from liberation theologians. They have the criticism part of their position perfected. They’ll be glad to tell you where the problem is, yet that’s where it stops.

Take the French Revolution. The people knew what the problem was and removed it, but how successful was their solution?

Without committing the crime obscurantist myself, I will offer a solution. I suggest academics, politicians, theologians, parents etc., not only hold a position of criticism but also give creative revisions. Whether the revisions should be accepted is another affair.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Heroes and Saints

A year before I returned to the Catholic Church, I became interested in the life of St. Francis of Assisi. A professor recommended I read "God's Fool" by Julien Green to understand the impact and gravity of what went on with Francis in his life. Shane Claiborne's comment about the taming of the saints and their voice through garden statues etc., is somewhat relevant in expressing the contrast between how these saints are portrayed in the tradition of the church and the reality of their lives. However, I do not agree that statues and people naming themselves after these saints is a light matter and part of a problem the church must solve. On the contrary, the traditions of veneration tell us to pay attention; their importance is solidified in these practices of the church. But what interested me particularly about Francis was his obsession with knights and chivalry early in his life before the conversion that defined him as a saint. Rising from his middle class status, he bought a suit of armor and went to war against a neighboring city, which ultimately led to his imprisonment for over a year and his return to Assisi. However, the damage was done, and his road to God began. It's the idea of the heroic that interested me, though, and it was one he never fully escaped. He gave names to virtues and called them "Lady." Lady Poverty, Lady Chastity.

Sometime this summer, Robin Hood will return to film with Russel Crowe as his interpreter, and from the trailers it will be an angry, vengeful Robin that never smiles and would serve well the the Spartans depicted in "300." Aside from the values embraced and projected onto Robin in this movie, there's something they omitted that makes the story of Robin Hood incomplete. For the sake of realism, Robin is angry, dirty, blood drips from his forehead as he draws his bow, and a vital part of the human experience and the legend of Robin Hood is neglected- his merriment. This part of his character is so central that the title used in telling his story often involves the word "merry." Find the old books, older than the movies, and you'll see titles like "The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood," and these aren't only for children. To be merry is a childlike thing, but not something reserved for children. They're only better at it than adults. A hero that can be merry, all the while fighting tyrannous and illegitimate kings, is far more dangerous than a hero who is unable to get past his anger and need for revenge.

Francis loved heroes and wanted to be one. I share that desire. The film industry would be crippled beyond healing if all of humanity woke tomorrow and lost their love for heroes and adventure. There is something true about them humans are drawn to. They're exceptional figures in history that provide us with scripts to act on in the smallest decisions. The Russell Crowe Robin Hood is real in the sense that he matches what the cynical would take as a hero, Francis and possibly the Robin Hood of legend would not. To be fully human is not an apology or an excuse to make mistakes. It is to rise toward God until we touch the created ceiling of our existence, covered in the most beautiful art, and there we meet God who takes us further into the divine. Chesterton wrote "Orthodoxy" as an apologetic for becoming Catholic. At the end of the book (not to spoil it for those who haven't read it) he says the one thing we'll be surprised by in heaven when we meet Christ Himself is his mirth. To be a saint is to not only express humanity in its fullness, but to reveal the divine; all saints are so because of God's power. And when a saint exists, all good things- from suffering for good to a sense of humor- are involved.

It smacks of geekdom to talk of honor, which I'll gladly accept. It also carries with it a goodness lost in recent times. And by saying there are honorable things is to say that there are dishonorable things- acts of ill repute. Yes, there is such a thing as a dishonorable person in our time, even if he or she isn't explicitly called such. To find a quick example, look to any of Kanye West's public embarrassment.

This is not a blog about heroes or saints. It is not one about my cats, garden, or what I cook. It is a comment on what I see as good, just, true, and worth writing about. I can't find the words to be more specific.